Conflicting Values in Intercultural Marriage

Everyone has values, regardless of how conservative or open-minded one might be.  From the stern, long-bearded Wahabi to the college student who hits up the clubs every weekend, we all have beliefs about how every action in life should be governed, which can cause a great deal of conflict when intimately dealing with someone who holds different beliefs.  Values tell us what we perceive to be good or bad, right or wrong, important or trivial. 

While all human beings share the same needs (food, shelter, companionship, etc.), the way we go about satisfying those needs differs from culture to culture, and even person to person.  People from the same cultural background may have different values in some areas.  The key to successfully navigating a relationship in which many values are vastly different is to being highly self-aware of your own values, being aware of the values of your partner, and realizing that values are merely different, and not inherently right or wrong. 

Romano cites researchers Edward Stewart and Milton Bennett as providing a model that divides values into four areas: form of activity, form of relations to others, perception of the world, and perception of the self.  

Form of Activity

Form of activity refers to the beliefs surrounding activities.  For example, mainstream Americans have an attitude of ‘doing’: activities are ‘done’, a person is responsible for their own actions and their own lives.  To succeed requires doing something.  A successful American person is measured by what they have done and activities they have accomplished.

Other cultures value ‘being’ with regard to activity.  A successful person is valued for who they are intrinsically – a good personality, kindness, sincerity, etc. 

Other cultures focus on self-growth, striving for constant personal change and reflection. 

Conflict could arise in the area of activity as an American may want to have their children involved in extra-curicular activities, whereas a non-American spouse may see that as a waste of time and ‘worthless’, and would want the children to perhaps spend time outdoors, communing with nature and becoming more in-tune with their inner spirit. 

Relation to Others

The second area of values is in relations to others.  Americans often see connections with others as easy to make and equally easy to break.  Relationships form quickly, but may often remain largely superficial or based on some external activity (study friends, drinking buddies, church friends, colleagues).  These friendships are frequently compartmentalized and often do not cross the boundary into another domain (for example, drinking buddies may not be interested in meeting you for lunch Wednesday.  Work friends may not want to help you move or put new tiles on your roof). 

In other cultures, friendships take time to initiate and develop, yet are long-lasting and deep.  These friends can be counted on to be at your side during both the good times and the bad.  Fights and disagreements may arise, but the bond of friendship is never shaken. 

The differing concept of friendship can cause problems not only within a romantic relationship, but also for anyone in a foreign society, attempting to make social contacts and fit in with the natives.  I have heard international students often complain that they ‘know’ many Americans but have a very hard time forming any real connection with them.  A foreign student may have no trouble finding something to do for fun on the weekend, but when it comes to more serious issues, these surface friends are nowhere to be found.  On the contrary, an American in another country may feel lonely and find it difficult to just have a conversation about the weather, and may not understand why people aren’t very ‘friendly’.  An intercultural couple may scoff at the other’s friends, and may not understand how important these types of relationships are to the other person’s sense of well-being. 

Perception of the World

The third realm of values lies in perception of the world – how the self and humanity as a whole is connected to nature.  Are humans separate or integral with nature?  Should we engage in respectful or exploitive treatment?  Do we fear nature or conquer it?

An American may see humanity as separate from the environment, having full mastery over it and the right to exploit it for our own needs.  A Native American, on the other hand, may see humanity as just one piece of the larger picture of life, and everything we do must be in balance with the natural rhythm of life. 

How a couple deals with even their trash could be a source of conflict (recycle or not? Throw trash in the trash can or out in the street?), or what kind of car to drive, what sort of products to buy, companies to support (or boycott), and so on.  Are the weeds in the yard a nuisance or a beautiful part of nature?  Is a yard or having anything green even necessary at all?     

Perception of the Self

The final area of values is perception of the self.  How do we see ourselves?  As separate entities (individualistic) or as part of a tightly knit group (collectivistic)?  This area of values in particular can cause a great deal of conflict, as the collective spouse may be seen as ‘spineless’ and the family too ‘controlling’, and the individualistic spouse as ‘selfish’ and the family ‘unloving’ and cold. 

The classic example of this is the collective partner breaking up with the individualistic partner because the family doesn’t approve.  The collective partner does what is best for the family unit, as they don’t perceive their own needs as separate from the family’s needs as a whole.  Yet, the individualistic partner is heartbroken by the perception that the other person must not ‘love’ them enough to stand up to the family and live their own life. 

Fortunately for me, I understand this concept and admire my (collectivistic) partner’s deep devotion and commitment to his family, and I actually deeply long to belong to such a close, devoted family.  I am relatively collectivistic due to my own unique background (conservative Christian, moved frequently, and was home schooled). 

As a result, I fully understand the dilemma my own collectivistic partner faces.  He is willing to take on the ridicule and ostracization from his community and society at large for his decision to be with me, but his more conservative, mostly uneducated family does not understand why he can’t just be with a girl from their city, and most certainly do not want to be constantly ridiculed, treated badly, and gossiped about because of a foreigner, that they don’t even approve of, entering the family.  As a result, they see his actions as selfish – and I fully understand.  His actions could cause their family unit harm.  It isn’t about the degree to which he loves me, on the contrary, it is about the fact that he is harming those who are an integral part of his concept of his own self.  His family is part of him.  To hurt them is to hurt himself.  The unavoidable fact remains that his family will be the ones dealing with the consequences of his decision for the rest of their lives.  

Many relationships have been destroyed and several hearts have been broken due to a lack of understanding on both sides about the very elemental value of what the self actually is, and who/what it includes. 

This is not to say that those who are collectivistic will never be able to have a relationship with someone who is individualistic – not in the least.  There are many variables involved: politics, education, religion, city/country of origin on both sides, and so on.

Closing Thoughts

Mostly, no one is ever aware of their values until these values have been challenged and stepped on.  Values can cause a great deal of conflict and anguish, as we usually automatically perceive our values as right, as the natural, most logical way of doing things, and don’t realize that in reality, values are just different ways of achieving the same goals.   As a result, it is imperative to take a step back and consider who you are as a cultural and value-laden person, and how that may differ from your partner.  Additionally, the next time you have an argument (and particularly the arguments that seem to come up constantly and are never resolved), don’t rush in blaming the other person for being ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘illogical’.  Instead, realize that the difference may lie in differing values.  When both parties respect the other’s values as valid and simply different, communication and compromise is much easier to achieve.

*Concepts taken  from “Intercultural Marriage” by Dugan Romano*


Phases of Adjustment in an Intercultural Marriage

Just as in a same-culture marriage, there are several phases of adjustment that couples commonly experience after marriage.  Intercultural couples face unique challenges in each of the adjustment periods which can seem confusing and can even cause serious issues in the relationship if not fully understood and dealt with appropriately.  These phases of adjustment are very similar to the phases common to culture shock – so imagine if you are going through the phases of marriage AND the phases of culture shock at the same time (which is probably common for many intercultural couples)!

Phase 1: Honeymoon

The first phase of adjustment is termed the honeymoon phase.  All couples go through this, although those who dated extensively beforehand may have completed this phase prior to marriage.  Couples in this stage are blinded by their attraction for one another, hormones and chemicals abound in the brain (see Helen Fisher’s work on YouTube for info about ‘the brain in love’), and as a result, often fixate on all the positive aspects of the other person, and ignore or downplay the negatives.  Differences are fascinating, thrilling, novel, and romantic.  Research shows that couples typically stay in this phase anywhere from a few months to 2 years. 

Phase 2: Settling In

After the initial excitement starts to wear off (as is necessary for normal life functioning, and helps the couple to spend their energy on raising children instead of solely on each other), the next phase begins – the Settling In phase.  The couple begins to relax and be themselves and show more of their true colors.  True habits and differing ideas about manners begin to show up, and characteristics (both personal and cultural) may start to be more of a concern than they were before.  An Arab husband’s penchance for protectiveness may seem a bit controlling to a Western wife, and a Western spouse’s individualistic outlook may start to seem a bit selfish from Asian (collectivistic) standpoints.  This is the stage when arguments may start to creep in, and the rosy glow of a picture-perfect, fairytale romance begins to fade.  Reality hits, and the couple begins to see how similar or different they really are, and their own, deepset, often unchallenged or even unnoticed beliefs and views are now being challenged and questioned.  Ideas about husband/wife roles, how to raise the kids, appropriate relationships with family members and in-laws, food, table manners, religion, and on and on will be brought to the forefront.  If a couple finds themselves having many cultural differences as well as individual and personality differences, the relationship may be so ridden with problems that it does not last.  Others, however, are able to work through their differences and make it to the next phase.

Phase 3: Life Patterns

This is the point where the path of the relationship can take a drastically different course.  Some couples end up separating due to the differences being too great and not being able to compromise and work through them.

  Others may give up dealing with ever-recurring problems and ignore them and sweep everything under the table (i.e. the head-in-the-sand method).  Tension, anger, and unresolved conflict still exists, but neither partner is willing to find a workable compromise.  These relationships tend to result in separate, loosely connected lives, and the relationship is experienced superficially. 

Still others choose to focus instead on all the positives of their partner and the relationship, helping put the problems into perspective.  The problems may still exist, and some of them may be ignored, but at least the couple is determined to see the glass as “half-full.”

The last path a couple can take is to willingly accept the fact that in order to have a fulfilling and successful relationship, they should constantly  communicate and negotiate with one another, realizing that although there will always be new issues to solve, finding a workable solution involves exploration, creativity and flexibility.  Differences can instead be viewed as an exciting, welcome challenge as opposed to a stressful, anger-filled, emotional nightmare.  Such couples also become less rigid in their thinking, and begin seeing many issues as less life-shattering and more minor.


Although a couple may fall into one particular pattern of coping with differences, this pattern does not have to remain static; it can change and fluctuate.  A couple may move forward to a more healthy way of functioning, and then suddenly regress backward, due to an unexpected or stressful event (which often sends us back into our comfortable, familiar and cultural ways of coping and dealing with life).  If you find yourself stuck in a pattern that isn’t working, try to figure out what exactly that pattern is, and begin to introduce healthier ways of coping with conflict (i.e. communication, honesty, respect, and flexibility).  Certainly, you can’t change your partner, but you can change yourself and how you react to your partner.  When you change your part of the interaction, your partner will have no choice but to readjust along with you in some way or another.

Final Thoughts

After all, if you married someone from a different culture, the differences are what you drew you to them in the first place, right?  If you desire a relationship free from differences, a. first of all, such a relationship doesn’t exist, and b. you definitely should not be married to someone from a different culture! 

If you are in an interculteral marriage/relationship, what phase are you in?  What difficulties have you faced, and how were you able to overcome them?

*Concepts taken from “Intercultural Marriage” by Dugan Romano*       

Types of People Commonly Attracted to Intercultural Marriage

To begin the series on intercultural marriage, beginning with a discussion about who exactly tends to be most attracted to intercultural relationships/marriages in the first place seems like a good place to start.  It’s certainly not for everyone, as mixed marriages are full of unique challenges that married people from the same culture may never face. 

In Romano’s book “Intercultural Marriage,”  she lists 5 common types of people who tend to be involved in intercultural relationships.  The first type is the Romantic type: those who see people from other cultures as exotic, fascinating, and thrilling.  These people may find people from their own culture boring  and predictable, and thrive in the mystique of people from far away and foreign lands. 

The second type is the Compensator.  These people often feel like something is missing from their lives and believe they have found it in another person or culture, as they believe elements from that person/culture fulfills what is missing from their own.  Romano notes that this type is found even in couples who marry from their own cultures, who are simply looking for someone to fulfill what they lacked growing up.   

Rebels are slightly different from the compensators in that they dislike much about their own culture and are intent on finding someone from somewhere else.  Sometimes they have a specific target culture in mind; other times they simply take whatever fate brings them. 

Internationals, the next type of people drawn to intercultural marriage, are those who lived outside their native countries for most of their lives, and are typically children of missionaries, diplomats,  military personnel, and so on.  These people often do not feel as though they completely belong to one particular culture, as they tend to have been influenced by several cultures and therefore have a wide appreciation and love for differences. 

The final category is comprised of Others.  These people may not fit into their society and often are ostracized from it.  Finding love in a different culture is a way to find a place to fit in and be accepted.  Some of them are not considered to be attractive in their native culture, and have better luck in another culture.  Others are part of a minority and find acceptance in another culture.  Still others live in poverty and marry as a way to improve their quality of life. 

After writing this, I began pondering which type I am, and it seems that I’m a mix of a few of them.  Basically, I’ve always been different from everyone else, so I can relate to others who are different and appreciate differences more readily.  I think that the world has so much to offer, so many different ideas and ways of thinking that can add a great deal to my life (making me a bit of a compensator). 

I moved constantly growing up, so I was always the outsider, always the new kid, always unsure of the local habits… since I was mostly home schooled, that added a further dimension because I wasn’t really part of mainstream American culture (making me somewhat of an International type, even though all my moves were domestic).  I recall one instance when I had just moved to a new town and was at lunch at school (I happened to actually go full time to public school that year).  One kid decided to start pestering me with questions, asking me things like, “Are you a dork? 
Are you a retard?  Are you a b*?”  I repeatedly answered with a resounding, “NO!”  Finally he asked, “Are you a virgin?”  I was about to repeat my answer when the girl next to me grabbed my arm and whispered, “No, don’t say no!  Say yes!”  I wasn’t sure if I could trust her or not – why would I say yes?!?!  I had no idea what it meant but it didn’t sound good… But after a few seconds of indecision, I gave in and said yes, and the kid, disappointed, gave up and left me alone.  This is just one example of all the vocabulary that I was completely clueless about (college was eye opening, haha). 

I also was a double major college and earned two master’s degrees (I have way too many interests), so I’ve never really fully fit in with my classmates either (in addition to being home schooled and not really having a hometown or childhood friends!).  And to top it all off, now I’m a White, American Muslim convert, so my being different is now very visibly apparent, due to my hijab!

Alhamdilulah, I like it though; I enjoy being different, and would feel bored, unmotivated, and unchallenged if I weren’t with someone who wasn’t different as well.  That I think, makes me a Romantic as well. 

Out of these 5 common types, which one are you? 

*Concepts taken from “Intercultural Marriage” by Dugan Romano*   

Intercultural Marriage

Since I am in the field of multiculturalism and work with people from all different nationalities, and have friends from all over the world, intercultural relationships and marriages are of great interest to me.  I have never been interested in my own kind (find it too boring!), and am eager to learn more about the inner workings of mixed marriages.  I recently came across an excellent book entitled, “Intercultural Marriage” by Dugan Romano, and found the ideas in it so helpful that I decided to start a series of posts summarizing some of the major points.  InshAllah, I hope that it can be a help to you as well!